A newly published research review found that children who participate in sex abuse programs in school are more likely to report abuse happening in their own lives than children who do not take part in such programs.
The review took into account 24 trials of prevention programs in schools, which included almost 6,000 elementary and high school students around the world.
“The programs increase children’s knowledge of child sexual abuse concepts and their skills in reacting and responding to risky situations,” said lead author Kerryann Walsh of Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia.
While each program varied in how they presented information to students, the majority taught children safety rules, body ownership, private body parts, types of touches and secrets, and who to tell.
Programs varied in length, from one program consisting of a single 45-minute session, to others including as many as 8 20-minute sessions.
Questionnaires and vignettes were used to determine each program’s effectiveness, finding that children who participated in such programs held a higher knowledge of protective behaviors and sex abuse prevention concepts. That knowledge lasted at least six months after the program had ended when children’s knowledge on the subject was reassessed in four of the trials.
Participants were also more likely to try to protect themselves in simulated abuse scenarios than non-participants. The scenario had children asked to leave the school and go with someone who they did not know.
The authors said that while around 4 of 1,000 children who had not participated in a program reported a form of sexual abuse, that number increased to 14 of 1,000 children who did take part in a prevention program.
In addition, the programs did not appear to increase or decrease anxiety levels or fear among the children who participated.
However, researchers did admit that it is difficult to prove that children have learned skills that are necessary to recognize and report instances of sexual abuse.
“Even if a child demonstrates that they know how to behave in a certain scenario, it doesn’t mean they will behave the same in a real situation where there is potential for abuse,” said lead author Kerryann Walsh of the Faculty of Education at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia. “Tests cannot mimic real abuse situations very well. For example, we know that most sexual abuse is perpetrated by someone known to the child whereas in the test situations, unfamiliar actors or research assistants were used.”
Sex abuse programs have been in use in schools since the 1980s, and the review authors suggest that the findings support their continued use.
It is estimated that around the world, 1 in 10 girls and 1 in 20 boys will experience a form of sexual abuse during their childhood. This results in increased levels of depression, eating disorders, suicidal tendencies, drug and alcohol problems, and a higher chance of becoming victims of sexual assault as adults.